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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, February 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Trump accuser settles defamation case without compensation

After nearly five years of bureaucratic gridlock, “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos settled her civil lawsuit against Donald Trump one week after the 45th president’s attorneys filed anti-SLAPP counterclaims against the accuser.

MANHATTAN (CN) — “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos quietly settled her defamation suit against Donald Trump out of court without any monetary compensation on Friday, a month ahead of the deadline for the former president to have been deposed in connection with her accusation that he lied about sexually assaulting her 15 years ago.

 “Today the parties have ended Zervos v. Trump,” wrote Zervos’ lawyers, Beth Wilkinson and Moira Penza, in a statement Friday afternoon. “After five years, Ms. Zervos no longer wishes to litigate against the defendant and has secured the right to speak freely about her experience.”

Zervos sued Trump just days before his 2016 inauguration. At a time when the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape had wounded his campaign, Trump called the former “Apprentice” contestant a liar and opportunist for coming forward with her own allegations of unwanted sexual advances.

Both Trump and Zervos were due to undergo questioning under oath by Dec. 23.

In light of the settlement, Zervos’ attorneys wrote on Friday that she still “stands by the allegations in her complaint and has accepted no compensation.”

Zervos had previously sought retraction, an apology and approximately $3,000 in damages.

For the duration of the Trump presidency, Zervos’ case slowed to a crawl, tangled up in claims by his legal team that that the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution bars state-court jurisdiction against a sitting U.S. president. No court ever bought Trump’s argument, but the possibility alone was enough to keep the case in limbo through circuitous appeals.

Trump was represented up until September 2021 in this case by his longtime lawyer, Marc Kasowitz of Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP. Kasowitz withdrew from the case and was replaced by 36-year-old New Jersey lawyer Alina Habba.

“Today, Ms. Zervos made the prudent decision to voluntarily drop her case without the exchange of any compensation or attorneys’ fees,” Habba told Courthouse News on Friday afternoon. “She had no choice but to do so as the facts unearthed in this matter made it abundantly clear that our client did nothing wrong. It is a privilege to defend President Trump, who has been relentlessly attacked and viciously hounded by bad faith actors. Enough is enough.”

Habba, a managing partner of Habba Madaio & Associates LLP, signaled last month that she intended to bring counterclaims against Zervos under New York’s new anti-SLAPP law — short for “strategic lawsuit against public participation” — which is designed to inhibit lawsuits intended to chill speech.

Habba also represents Trump in his recent suit against his niece Mary Trump, The New York Times and three of its reporters for allegedly conspiring against him in an “insidious plot” to obtain his sensitive tax records. 

Zervos’ attorneys last month asked for the Manhattan Supreme Court to formally schedule a 2021 deadline for Trump to get in the deposition hot seat now he’d been out of the office since January.

“The case has been pending nearly five years now,” attorney Jackie Delligatti with the firm Wilkinson Stekloff LLP said in October during the first hearing in the case since Trump left the Oval Office. “The defendant is now a private citizen, and he just cannot delay this litigation any longer.”

The remote status conference was presided over by Justice Jennifer Schecter’s law clerk, Michael Rand, who noted that a prior stay on the case had already been lifted and he could see no grounds for further delay.

Before Trump left office, Rand explained, the case’s timeline had to accommodate the complicated schedule of a sitting president.

“Now he’s a private citizen,” the clerk continued, setting a deadline to complete all fact-discovery, including party depositions, by Dec. 23, 2021.

In the underlying case, Zervos sued Trump for defamation. She says Trump called her a liar on the 2016 campaign trail after she came forward about purported assaults he committed nearly a decade earlier. In court, Zervos said Trump “ambushed” her on “more than one occasion” — repeatedly kissing her on the mouth, touching her breast and pressing his genitals up against her.

At the time Zervos was a 30-year-old California restaurateur who had met the future president when she appeared on the fifth season of his reality show, which filmed in 2005 and aired in 2006.

Trump has denied the allegation, calling it “a hoax” that is part of a plot to wound him politically.

In January 2019, New York’s midlevel First Department appeals court ruled 3-2 that the case should proceed because it found Trump as president was “not above the law.”

An earlier ruling called Zervos’ case “materially indistinguishable” from one in which former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones accused then-President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed Jones’ case go forward in 1997, and Clinton was impeached the next year.

Trump got the case put on hold in January 2020, pending a determination from the New York Court of Appeals as to whether the case should be delayed until he’s out of office. Lawyers for Zervos sought permission to gather evidence and potentially depose the sitting president, but the Albany-based high court refused to vacate the stay.

Two months after Trump’s presidential term ran out, the New York Court of Appeals dismissed his appeal, writing in a brief order that “the issues presented have become moot.”

She is among more than a dozen women who came forward during Trump’s 2016 campaign to accuse him of longstanding sexual assault or sexual harassment.

Over the five years of the case, Zervos has been represented by famed women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and Mariann Wang from the firm Cuti Hecker Wang.

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Categories / Civil Rights, National, Politics

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